In this first of his impressive trilogy on epistemology, Alvin Plantinga surveys the current offerings surrounding the concept of warrant. Warrant is that which distinguishes knowledge from mere true belief. Plantinga notes the confusion around the interrelation of justification, knowledge and evidence, and even more foundationally, over the nature of justification itself.
Accounts of epistemic warrant since the time of Descartes and Locke have centered around various notions of deontology. These in turn generate internalist notions of dutifulness (chapters 1-3). Thus, a knower is taken to have special internal access to factors or states that indicate whether they have succeeded in fulfilling their noetic responsibilities. Duty is entirely subjective, and one cannot be responsible for failing to do ones objective duty – a notion which founders on recognising that certain things are objectively never acceptable for a ‘properly functioning’ human being. Furthermore, these justifying internal states are always accessible to the knowing subject. Deontological internalism leads to doxastic voluntarism, and as is the case in Plantinga’s broader critique, fails to account for epistemic malfunction.
Plantinga goes on to outline various other perorations of internalism. Neither an account of a particular relationship between evidence – belief pairs (chapter 3), nor sufficient coherence of a belief with the other noetic structures (chapters 4 through 7), are either necessary or sufficient for warranted knowledge. Coherentism broadly fails to articulate the relation of beliefs to experience or evidence. Chapter seven is an excursus of sorts into the neighbouring world of rationality taken from a Bayesian perspective.
In chapter 8 Plantinga explores John Pollock’s account of internalism. Pollock argues for an internalist account of justification as resulting from conformity to natural epistemic norms. These norms are presumed correct because they ‘are constitutive of the concepts we have’ (p. 165). However, norms that give an adequate, justified belief, may not actually lead to true knowledge. Thus Plantinga indicates that Pollock’s so-called internalism is deeply flawed, but notes Pollock’s own suggestions that norms can be more fully conceived of in a wider framework which indicates what a human person is as a thinking agent. This begins to move in the direction of Plantinga’s own conviction about proper epistemic function.
The final substantive chapter investigates reliabilism - the suggestions that beliefs are reasonable in relation to their production by faculties that produce true beliefs. Plantinga argues that while such a belief-producing mechanism may be reliable, this may be accidental, and thus reliabilism is insufficient for warrant. This recognition will be expanded in Warrant and Proper Function, effectively clearing the decks for the development of Plantinga’s own suggestion.
Warrant: The Current Debate, is an interesting, often complex, tour of modern epistemology. While perhaps not strictly necessary for understanding Plantinga’s own contribution to discussion of warrant, it situates his own work against the backdrop of other competing claims. The notion of proper epistemic function is rich with philosophical and theological potential - as Plantinga himself recognises, noting that his ‘naturalist epistemology…flourishes much better in the garden of supernatural theism than in that of metaphysical or theological naturalism’ (p. 215).